A few years ago a very good friend of mine and I decided that things were getting a little narky and we needed to try and focus on good stuff. Some of this meant holding back when the opportunity came for getting annoyed and to make sarcastic comments, some of it meant things like encouraging people to look back before going home each day and find something to make them smile. It sounds a bit trite but we were committed to it and named it CPD – Colin’s Positivity Drive!
This weekend someone I’ve known on twitter for a while but not met until this point said they’d seen me getting frustrated and that I should avoid getting dragged down. She had a point and as such here’s step number one in CPD Mk2.
On Saturday I was one of over 200 people that went to TLT13 in Southampton. The day was full of people sharing ideas and strategies for classrooms ranging from finding the Maths in painting and decorating to using photos of tigers and scared boyband looking lads to kick off questioning and speaking and listening activities which are key to developing literacy.
These were people who, some after momentous journeys, had spent a Saturday in what was for most the seventh week of an eight week half term exchanging and exploring pedagogical ideas with absolute commitment and enthusiasm from the kick off with Jamie ‘swearbox’ Portman through to the end when David Doherty rounded things off. Nobody came for anything other than to share or pick up ideas and nobody asked anything in return- not even Dave Fawcett and Jenn Ludgate who must have put in enough hours to double their workload for the term so far getting it all going.
It’s this dedication that was in my mind today when I was discussing where the profession goes next. Yep, itwas one of those conversations. You know the sort where we all get very grandiose and self important about a spectacular theory we have about what’s wrong and how it could be solved if only everyone would listen to me.
But this one was different. I don’t have a grand theory, I don’t have a manifesto or a plan about how we should muster our troops and march on anywhere. Anywhere other than our classrooms that is.
When I’ve seen people express a low morale or anxiety about where it’s all going my response has tended to be one where I encourage people to get in their classrooms, shut the door and teach their kids – obviously in the spirit of sharing and collaboration an open door is a better approach but it doesn’t work as well as part of the message. My main point is that teaching is teaching and the basic beauty of what goes on when a group of young people are working with a dedicated teacher who genuinely cares about them and their successes should be unaffected by whatever government initiative or prejudice comes and goes. It should be a place where we can have sanctuary from all of that and get on with what we enjoy and what we signed up for.
This is why people were in Southampton on Saturday. While there were inevitable references to the two Michaels and why we despise the pair of them, and while some tweets on the day included #teacherROAR and asked ‘are you listening Mr Gove?’ I don’t think that’s the reason people went. We could all have a pop at those in power without making the trek or, as it seems some people have done, pen another blog about why it’s all someone else’s fault and ‘I’m jolly good don’t you know’ without making the effort to get together. Yes it was a choice and there was no need for anyone to attend that didn’t want to but people did, and they did I think because they wanted to do better in their classrooms and their schools and for no more complicated – or less vital and important – reason than that.
And it’s also where I think we should concentrate our efforts. In the last few weeks in our schools we have had to inform our Year 11 students about early entry, or rather the fact that it won’t be happening for a lot of them, earlier this term we had to let them know that all of the work they did for speaking and listening won’t have the direct impact on their results that we thought it would, previous to that we had students who had left schools back in to teach them extra English to try and get them prepared for another English exam to make up for the AQA mess. All of these are external things that we in schools had to or are having to make up for. They also share a common factor in that they make us feel powerless and frustrated.
But we’re not powerless. We may feel powerless about influencing policy or in trying to find an exam board that is free of influence, we may feel powerless when inspection frameworks change and we suddenly find that for behaviour to be above Requires Improvement it’s not enough for students to attend, behave well and develop caring and supportive attitudes to each other unless they have a thirst for learning as well. We may feel powerless when the same changes mean a report that meant one grade before the summer means something different as of September 1st.
I believe though that it’s a more this feeling of powerlessness than any real situation that will hold us back. Yes things are hard, bloody hard, and it looks like we will never know where the next sideswipe will come from but we should never forget where are real sphere of influence is and it’s here where we can, to coin a phrase, make a difference.
Let’s make a decision as a profession to do what we signed up for and teach. Let’s not allow ourselves to have that power and that influence taken away from us. If the C/D borderline is going to move, let’s move the kids further forward. One of the things I heard at the weekend that struck a chord, among so many others, was ‘I don’t do differentiation, I teach everyone to get the best.’ If we want to convince parents to be on our side then let’s ensure their kids are getting the best, if we want our students to work with us then let’s show them a profession dedicated to them and getting them the best. If we want to beat exam board changes and entry policies then make the students bulletproof to them by raising our expectations and their achievements so the goalpost movers have little impact.
If we want to stick two fingers up at inspectors or secretaries of state let’s make every lesson so mindblowing that there’s nothing to find fault with and have schools with results at such a high level that noone can do anything other than recognise and praise the success.
In 15 years I’ve seen students assessed by levels and grades, through SATS and GCSEs, A Levels and AS/A2 levels, have prepared students for terminal exams and portfolios and combinations of both across a range of subjects with a range of assessment demands and come the end and they all did pretty well. While all of the changes have been going on my teaching (while I hope it improved along the way) hasn’t really changed that much, primarily because I focused on teaching the subject first and worried about how it was assessed later. Students around the country are now anxious and understandably so, because they’ve been working towards a November deadline that looks like not coming. Their preparation, their teaching and their investment have been structured around the exam. An exam they knew was going to come, and for a large number of them was going to define next steps, for a long, long time. They know it because their teachers told them so, and their teachers told them so because this was at the heart of their planning. Not teaching Maths, not enjoying their time in the classroom but preparing for an exam. And it’s not the teachers’ fault. What do we expect in a system structured around the end result?
Maybe then we need to look for a different way to get there, or rather reclaim the way to get there. A headteacher I have admired for a very long time once told me that we can see schools as two tracks running parallel. One is about education and the other is about assessment and we should focus on the first and build understanding and the attributes, knowledge and skills that our students need to lead successful and prosperous lives before we switch the points and get them across on to the other track when we need to and prepare them to use what they have to get through the final assessment – whatever shape the hole in the wall coming towards them is this time.
And let’s not kid ourselves that all of the problem is external. I’ve vented (rambled on about) my frustrations with the negative voices within our own professions before and on Saturday Jamie Portman’s introduction spoke to those teachers who want to take things forward and change schools and warned them of those in the staffroom and the wider education world who would sit and sneer and demoralise and at times these voices will be sapping our confidence as much as any ‘leaked’ story in The Telegraph. It’s my belief that a lot of this is satisfying their own need for everyone to agree it’s all awful in order to avoid being part of making it better but I’m more than happy to be proved wrong on this if these guys want to get on board and be part of it.
So let’s reclaim the agenda. Let’s take the battle back to our turf and let’s not let anyone distract us so much with stuff we feel we can’t influence that we end up convincing ourselves we don’t have power over the stuff that we can.
Lots of Love